This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week six (dessert week) of series two: croquembouche.
Is there anything more gloriously, resplendently French than a croquembouche? Delicate, perfectly crisp profiterole shells encasing soft cream, with a crisp and shattering glaze of caramel holding them all together, piled high, served at weddings and other celebratory communal events, a creation from the dazzling and spectacular mind of Marie-Antoine Careme. And the showstopper challenge of dessert week.
There is a reason croquembouche was selected as the showstopper challenge: it is not a simple task and I admit I was not, strictly speaking, worthy of it. I didn’t really make a croquembouche, more a piled-up tower of profiteroles stacked up into a peak. As it was I found the experience of building exceptionally stressful and can’t imagine how I would have felt had I opted for a proper croquembouche experience.
I also eschewed making a full-on croquembouche, with the little profiteroles stuck to a cone mould, delicately removed at the end of the assembly-job, on cost grounds. A proper metal croquembouche mould is expensive and would have been a pointless piece of kitchen kit to own, even by my admittedly relaxed standards on what exactly constitutes ‘pointless’. A lot of recipes on the internet suggested using, instead, a foil-wrapped polystyrene cone, which sounds like an excellent solution, but I had a window of free time and didn’t want to wait for something ordered online to arrive, and just couldn’t face traipsing to art shops around London to find one (I did have a quick peek in a local art shop). I recalled that Holly Bell, one of the series two finalists, had actually piled her profiteroles up and just decided to do that. However, because of this decision, my profiterole tower can hardly claim to have reached the lofty heights of a true croquembouche. On the other hand, I would have run out of both profiteroles and stomach capacity had I opted for one of traditional height.
Although as I’ve said above the croquembouche is a quintessentially French dessert, I added a Belgian twist by making a speculoos paste filling, using a recipe from a book I picked up on impulse a few trips ago. Juliette’s Speculoos is all about speculoos, those ubiquitous spiced Belgian biscuits, and the flavours are translated into a variety of different desserts, such as tiramisu. Regrettably the instructions aren’t as clear as they could be (even in the original Dutch book which I have) and I definitely overcooked the paste, making it a little harder, drier and more candy-like than I would have wished. So I’d say definitely go slow when making this and don’t let the mixture boil. Instead of using caramel to bind – as speculoos already has a caramelised flavour – I used a chocolate ganache, made with a little less cream than usual to ensure it was firm. When using chocolate for binding, I would recommend letting it cool carefully between layers and ensuring the croquembouche is kept in a cool place, because if the chocolate melts everything will slide around.
Contestant Mary-Anne Boermans’ croquembouche was balanced on a praline base; to tie the flavours together I made a chocolate shortbread base to balance the profiterole tower on. I will say that shortbread probably isn’t the ideal choice because the texture is very tender and breakable, but it is a very good recipe.
Chocolate shortbread base
From Linda Collister’s The Little Book of Chocolate Tips (incidentally, Linda Collister actually writes the recipes in the Great British Baking Books which are tied to the show)
- 200g butter, soft
- 100g caster sugar
- 260g plain flour
- 40g cocoa powder
- Preheat the oven to 180C.
- Cream together the butter and caster sugar
- Mix in the flour and cocoa powder
- Grease a 23cm cake tin (I usually use a springform), pat the shortbread mixture into the tin and prick evenly across the base with a fork. Bake for about 15 minutes, until firm and dry (because it starts off very dark it’s hard to gauge when this is fully baked). Let it cool in the tin before baking
From Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess (classic and luscious). A friend of mine assured me her profiterole recipe is the best.
- 200g plain flour
- 350ml water
- 150g unslated butter, diced
- pinch salt
- 4 large eggs, beaten
- Grease two baking sheets and set aside. Preheat the oven to 200C. Sieve the flour.
- Put the water, butter and salt into a medium saucepan and heat until the butter has melted and the water has begun to boil. Remove from the heat immediately – you don’t want the water to evaporate – and beat in the flour, using a wooden spoon. It will be thick and lumpy and difficult but will eventually smoothen out.
- Place the pan back on a low heat for a minute or two, stirring all the while, until the dough begins to come away from the sides of the pan to form a smooth ball. Remove from the heat immediately.
- Beat in the eggs gradually, either by hand or with a mixer. Don’t add all of the eggs at once as you may not need them. You are aiming for a consistency which is soft enough to pipe but stiff enough to hold its shape.
- Using a 2cm plain nozzle or, if you don’t have a piping kit, just a spoon, pipe or shape rounds onto the oiled baking sheets. Bake for around 15 minutes, until golden and crisp.
- Once baked, pierce each profiterole with a skewer and return to the oven for a couple of minutes so that the steam is released and the profiteroles retain their crispness.
White chocolate speculoos spread filling
From Juliette’s Speculoos
- 100ml double cream
- 500g caster sugar
- 20g glucose syrup
- 20g butter
- 165g white chocolate, chopped
- 10g speculoos cookies (the ubiquitous brand, wildly popular in Belgium but also sold in the UK, is Lotus)
- 8g mixed spice (either a commercial mix or a combination of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ground cardamom and coriander)
- On a medium-low heat, heat the cream, sugar and glucose together until the sugar is melted, but do not let it boil. Remove from the heat.
- Add the butter and white chocolate and combine thoroughly until melted
- Crush the speculoos cookies and add them to the mix. Stir in the spices gradually, tasting every now and then, until you’re happy with the taste. I used all the spices.
- 200g dark chocolate
- 150ml double cream
- Chop the dark chocolate finely. In a smallish saucepan, bring the double cream to the boil. Once it reaches the boil, remove from the heat and stir in the chopped dark chocolate, stirring until completely melted. Set aside to cool; the more it cools the thicker it will be.
- Scrape the speculoos filling into a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle. If you think it is too stiff to pipe, you will need to cut the choux buns almost in half (leaving one side intact) and spoon the filling in rather than piping.
- Take a profiterole and widen the steam hole you made earlier with a skewer. Insert the piping nozzle into the hole and squeeze in some speculoos filling. Do this with all of the profiteroles.
- Take your chocolate shortbread base and remove from the cake tin onto a plate or cake stand. Leaving a small gap around the edge – 0.5cm-1cm – place the choux buns along the outside perimeter. Add a second reinforcing row on the inside of the first choux bun ring. Add a third reinforcing ring. Spoon a little of the chocolate ganache onto each choux bun.
- Add a second layer of choux buns on top of the first row. Let the chocolate layer cool and firm up before topping each choux bun on the second layer with a little more ganache.
- Proceed, building up into smaller concentric rings of profiterole and letting the chocolate firm up at each layer, until you have run out of buns. Pour the remaining ganache over the top. Let firm up.